Covid Cautionary Tales
The pandemic has given journalists a captive audience. They've used it to paint Covid deaths as Greek tragedies.
The art of journalism, as G. K. Chesterton quipped in The Wisdom of Father Brown, “largely consists in saying ‘Lord Jones Dead’ to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.” As his story demonstrates, journalists and their editors do not merely report the news. They create it, and they create it according to the appetites of their audiences and the strictures of their patrons.
Though times have changed, the fundamental truth of Chesterton’s observation has not—with one exception. The pandemic is the news that will capture the audience; pandemic compliance is the obsession of the professional managerial class that dominates the newsrooms. Thus it is no longer enough to simultaneously inform the public of Lord Jones’s existence and his death: We must now tell them why the formerly unknown figure has died. And so the modern headline reads “Lord Jones, Covid Denier, Dead.”
This particular genre of news story—call it the Covid cautionary tale—began early in the pandemic but seems to have blossomed since the introduction of the vaccine. In the past weeks alone, nationally promoted stories have informed the breathless public of the deaths of a relatively obscure GOP politician from California and still more obscure septuagenarian French television personalities. Such stories saturate the internet: the death of Kelly Ernby alone was covered in the Hill, People, CBS News, Yahoo News, Daily Mail, and many more. And the genre is not limited to public (or quasi-public) figures. A restaurateur from Michigan who kept his diner open to provide for his employees and pay for his wife’s cancer treatment—an act that a saner age would regard as exemplary piety—was subject to the same treatment after his death.
All this would be more tolerable if the stories were not so drearily predictable. The representative example of the genre adheres broadly to the contours of Greek tragedy, if that tragedy had been written by a dull and censorious sophomore. First, the protagonist demonstrates hubris, deviating in some way from the ever-shifting Science: attending a Christmas party, refusing a vaccine, or simply expressing a doubt about the reigning consensus. Hubris awakens nemesis, and nemesis brings about the peripeteia: infection, hospitalization, death. But, as Aristotle would tell you, the best tragedies are not complete without a moment of anagnorisis. Someone must recognize the nature of the hero’s error. It is best if the anagnorisis be provided by the protagonist himself (the death-bed confession is particularly effective), but, failing that, it can be provided by a close relative.
The first problem with all this is that such cautionary tales are—or should be—completely useless to a thinking man. It should go without saying, of course, but scattered anecdotes prove nothing. We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has claimed many lives and will claim more: young and old, masked and unmasked, vaccinated and unvaccinated. But with the partial exception of the sporting world, in which very public outbreaks among highly vaccinated celebrities cannot be ignored, we rarely if ever hear about the infection or death of a rule-following citizen. Instead, we are subjected to a relentless barrage of sensationalist stories, all of which serve to distract from actually useful information. Stories on the extent to which the various vaccines can mitigate infection, or the ways infection can spread amongst the vaccinated, or the long-term impact of containment measures on children, or the relative severity of the different variants, could produce actual knowledge in the audience. As often as not, however, they are drowned in a sea of sensational cautionary tales which produce little in the way of knowledge, but much sentiment and conviction.
This brings us to the second problem with such news stories. The old Greek tragedies were designed to produce a purgation of emotion, the catharsis, that would enable members of the audience to lead more rational, dispassionate, and moderate lives. The Covid tragedies produce quite the opposite effect, no matter the political orientation of the reader. Among the great American middle (those who know Covid is a potentially lethal illness but do not religiously follow every diktat of the CDC) the constant barrage of headlines breeds something like superstitious fear—as though the simple act of entertaining doubts about public health guidelines put one at risk of illness and death. After all, Ohio’s Solicitor General is vaccinated and boosted—but that wasn’t enough to save him from infection as he prepared to argue against Biden’s vaccine mandate in the Supreme Court. Is this, as one columnist has suggested, “a sign from life”? Will the universe punish you for reading this column? There’s no way to be sure; better to be safe than sorry. This is the logic of the chain-letter.
For fully committed followers of Fauci and Biden, the emotional effect is even worse. Stories of this sort vindicate them in their righteousness, producing a macabre satisfaction with their own righteousness and disdain for those who fall short. Those who contract Covid probably deserve it. The resultant cruelty had begun to alarm left-of-center writers as early as last fall, but has shown no clear signs of abating. Indeed, some on the left have doubled down.According to a Pulitzer-prize winning LA Times columnist, mocking the deaths of anti-vaxxers “ghoulish…but necessary”; we may go so far as to dance on their graves. It is, you see,“a teachable moment.”
This growing divide should alarm us all, vaccinated or unvaccinated, left or right. What was once primarily a very online expression of malice (Reddit’s Herman Cain award) has begun to work its way into the highest levels of public policy. The White House has been notorious in this regard—whether through Biden’s failed attempt at tough-guy straight talk in September (“Our patience is wearing thin”) or the his more recent deployment of “we” (the vaccinated) and “you” (the unvaccinated) in his December 21 address.
Other countries have been worse. The European powers, in particular, seem blithely committed to repeating—as farce, for now—the darkest episodes in their modern histories. So Germany and Austria have identified a political minority they believe responsible for present woes, stigmatized them and locked them down, all in an attempt to “exclude them from public life.” In France, the oppressive genius expresses itself differently. For Emmanuel Macron, the unvaccinated are not citizens at all. Jarring words for any world leader, but all the more so for the leader of a country whose revolutionary ideology is intimately bound up with the word “citizen,” and whose national anthem celebrates the war of citizens against the impure. Macron has stated that he wants to “piss off” the unvaccinated. Might we ask him when to expect the blood of the unvaccinated to water his furrows?
It is difficult to see where all this will end. Any mature Covid response—national or local, institutional or individual—must be rooted in real knowledge and sober balancing of competing goods: the health of the old versus that of the young, the relative importance of liberty and security, the benefits and risks of “distance education,” and so on. But the cautionary tales, relying as they do on an utterly simplistic moral framework (the wages of non-compliance is death!) and promoting as they do tribalist thinking, render this all but impossible.
The journalists and algorithm-makers have obviously hit on a profitable formula: the stories generate clicks, and clicks sell advertising. Nor does the progression of the pandemic inspire confidence: the endlessly proliferating variants and the demand for an ever-increasing number of booster shots seem to guarantee that we will always have a class of “denier” or “resister” to punish, at least for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, we are left to resist, and strive for sanity among the noise, until circumstances change—or, as Chesterton’s narrator has it, until God sends us braver men.
Ben Reinhard is an associate professor of English and academic dean at Christendom College, where he teaches courses in Old and Middle English literature. His writings have appeared in the Imaginative Conservative, Catholic World Report, and the University Bookman. His new translation of Beowulf is forthcoming with Cluny Press.